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SR International: Inside The Making Of ‘Friends’- Legendary TV Director James Burrows Details The Vegas Cast Trip That Turned Into TV History In First Memoir Excerpt

SR International: Inside The Making Of ‘Friends’- Legendary TV Director James Burrows Details The Vegas Cast Trip That Turned Into TV History In First Memoir Excerpt


James Burrows, who reportedly has a net worth of $600 Million according to Celebrity Net Worth, is constantly amazed, but not surprised, by how seductive “Friends” is, how the world fell in love with it and how it keeps getting rediscovered by each successive generation that watches it. The story of a group of twenty-somethings who help each other get through an important and confusing time in their lives, early adulthood—where everything they know is changing and none of the old rules work, and the one thing they know is that they can count on one another—is an enduring theme, with the six remarkable people playing characters who have endeared themselves to multiple generations of viewers.

There is a certain eternal glow to the show that is amazing to watch and is part of why it is not only evergreen in America but successful all over the world. As Jennifer Aniston said, “Friends planted a flag that touches people’s hearts in a way that nothing else can. It premiered at a time where there was no Internet and no cellphones. People had conversations with one another. While we were so far away then from where we are now, young people are still tapping into the connection between six people who don’t have all the answers but are helping each other figure it out.”

Photo: Ryan Lowry for WSJ. Magazine

David Crane and Marta Kauffman had just come off a hit with HBO’s “Dream On.” I received their pilot script that they co-wrote called “Six of One,” which became the basis for Friends Like Us and then Friends. It was late in the 1994 pilot season, and I had already committed to directing four other projects. I had a good sense about Friends and knew two things immediately: one, I didn’t have time to direct it, and two, I had to direct it. It became the last pilot shot that year.

I fell in love with these six kids on the page immediately. Ninety-five percent of the original pilot script made it to air. In multicamera sitcoms, you fix problems and address issues during the table read. That said, our pilot table read for Friends went as well as any reading could have gone. I had only one note for David and Marta: Joey and Chandler were too similar. In Joey’s original incarnation, he was too smart. They “dumbed” him down a bit so the two characters wouldn’t play in each other’s wheelhouse. The scripts were fabulous. Like “Cheers,” it was a really funny and evolving show, especially because of the Ross and Rachel romance.

The final important factor was the casting. We had amazing luck in that all six of the people we wanted were available. Six really good-looking people who were funny. A lot of people were watching the show just to see these good-looking people. So much so that the writing was underappreciated. It took eight seasons for Friends to win an Emmy. Over the first four shows, we realized that this was an equal group. Each script already had three storylines, but the writers started revising to create a balance. It has never happened before or since with a cast that large. James Burrows Net Worth

Here are some things James Burrows revealed to WSJ. Magazine…

On Courteney Cox

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Courteney Cox, or Coxenhammer, as I affectionately call her, was initially the most well-known member of the cast, mainly for her role on Family Ties and when Bruce Springsteen pulled her up onstage for his “Dancing in the Dark” video. She was not the funniest one in the group but grew into it and found her humor. They figured out how to write for her. Monica was the logical center of the show. She was stunningly beautiful and was the connection between the other cast members. The series could have easily been called Monica’s Friends. She knew everyone, and other than the coffee shop, Central Perk, her apartment was the meeting place.

On Lisa Kudrow

Despite losing the role of Roz on Frasier (which I also directed), Lisa couldn’t have been more professional about the whole thing. Although, when the Friends pilot was in production, I heard from someone on the show that Lisa said, “That f—ing Jimmy Burrows is directing the show. Can you believe it?” We’re really good friends now.

On David Schwimmer:

The part of Ross was written for David Schwimmer. I had worked with him in another pilot, called Monty, with Henry Winkler. David initially turned down the Friends job because he had a miserable experience on another show. He was hesitant to commit to a five-year minimum term, which all sitcom actors have to do. At the time, he was playing Pontius Pilate in a production of The Master and Margarita in Chicago. I called him and said, “You have to come and meet everyone.” He was concerned that the show wasn’t going to be collaborative and that his ideas wouldn’t be welcome. We assured him that this experience would be different and it would be an ensemble. 

During the first season of Friends, he asked me if I would mentor him. He shadowed me, first on Friends and later on Will & Grace and other sets. I was as happy to teach him as he was eager to learn. He went on to direct 10 episodes of Friends, other television episodes, a few movies and lots of theater in both Chicago and New York. I once told him, “Schwimmer, you’re the second-funniest person I’ve ever known.” To this day, I’ve never told him who the first is.

On Jennifer Aniston:

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Jennifer Aniston—JA, as I call her—was originally in a holding position when she auditioned, meaning that at the time she was committed to another show, Muddling Through. We were auditioning other actresses but hoping that her show would not get picked up. JA is the hardest type to find in comedy—she is both beautiful and funny. She was able to play the basket-case runaway bride in the open. As a neurotic Jewish woman, almost an early version of Grace Adler, she could play the pathos of that role and still be incredibly funny. From Friends, JA (who still calls me Papa) moved to a successful movie career and back to television.

On Matt LeBlanc:

Matty LeBlanc is incredibly irreverent in person, but because he is so good-natured, you can’t get angry with him. It’s a tribute to his skills that his character developed over the course of the series. He never played Joey as the dumb guy, just as the incorrect guy, the “much smarter than you think” guy, the one with the most growth potential, the least number of rules, and who became the most empathetic.

A character can’t evolve if it’s not in the script, but you also need an actor who can really show that growth. Matty was “the most improved player.” He grew the most, because he paid attention to all the notes and was the most willing to learn from the other five and from everyone else involved. As Joey, Matty always had to be ready on set to come in and punch up the ending of a scene with a complete non sequitur. In a scene that needed a funny ending, he could walk in the door to Monica’s apartment and say, “You got a tweezer?” and get a huge laugh.

On finding Chandler:

Finding the right actor to play Chandler was tricky. Broadway actor Craig Bierko turned down the role. Jon Cryer was also up for it. He was in London and had to get up in the middle of the night his time and rehearse the part with someone on tape. The tape was rushed off to FedEx to be shipped overnight to Los Angeles. FedEx wound up losing the package. We never saw it.

Like Jennifer Aniston, Matthew Perry was also initially in second position, solely due to a commitment to another show. He had done a pilot for ABC called LAX 2194, about baggage handlers in the future, and was waiting to hear if it got picked up. Matthew had a very distinctive style. He was the smart, quick one. He brought the self-deprecating and the funny, good-looking guy to the table. 

On making sure the cast would become friends:

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As director, I am there to help create the ensemble, to do everything I can to foster a community among the company, and to train a new set of actors to behave as a group and respect one another. The first thing I did to facilitate this was to make sure the cast had every opportunity to become friends in real life. Before the show aired, I asked Les Moonves, who was then head of Warner Bros. Television, if I could borrow the corporate jet to take the young cast to Las Vegas. He liked the idea of taking the group to Las Vegas but wasn’t crazy about lending me his plane. He eventually agreed.

On the Vegas trip:

I made a reservation for just the seven of us at Spago. I asked for the center table in the restaurant, where everyone could see us. I knew the show had a chance to really take off and told the kids, “This is your last shot at anonymity. Once the show airs, you guys will never be able to go anywhere without being hounded.” None of them believed me. None of them had any money at that point either, so I gave each of them a couple of hundred bucks to go gamble. I laid out $1,400. If the math doesn’t seem right, it’s because LeBlanc had no idea how to play craps and he lost his two hundred dollars in seconds, so I gave him another two hundred. They went back to Los Angeles, the show premiered, they’ve never had a shot at anonymity since, and they each wrote me reimbursement checks for the money I gave them.

It took two episodes for me to get a shorthand with the cast. The six became real friends and would play poker in my dressing room. It was about bonding. They genuinely adored one another. A director and cast live for that kind of connection.

On advising the cast on renegotiating their contracts:

I directed the first 10 episodes of Friends in season one and came back to do five more later on. After the first season, the group sought my advice about how to renegotiate their contracts. I advised them to negotiate as a group and stay in lockstep financially. Negotiating with the six individually would have given the network leverage against each of them. Since it was clear that there were no subsidiary characters in the series, it made sense to me for them to stick together. James Burrows Net Worth

The show was a home run. If the network could pay six million dollars an episode to the group, you could only imagine how much money they were making. By negotiating separately and pitting them against one another, the network could have easily destroyed all the chemistry they’d developed. If you have equally talented people who become a family, you need to treat them that way. It’s the right thing to do and it’s also good business. In what made international news at the time, it became precedent for sitcom stars to be paid the same amount. After the second season, each of the Will & Grace stars also got paid the same amount for the duration of the show, for the same reason that the Friends stars did—they had all become equals.

Read the full article here.

Photo: Ryan Lowry for WSJ. Magazine

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